US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was scheduled to outline Washington’s strategic shift to the Pacific and a tentative rapprochement with Myanmar when he met yesterday with Asian counterparts at a conference in Cambodia, officials said.
Wrapping up a week-long tour of Southeast Asia that comes before US President Barack Obama visits the region next week, Panetta was to join 10 fellow defense ministers from ASEAN in the Cambodian resort of Siem Reap.
Panetta was expected to discuss the US’ careful steps toward reopening ties with Myanmar’s military, as well as Washington’s bid to “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region.
The US tilt to Asia, as well as warming relations with Myanmar, reflect a concerted effort by the Obama administration to assert US influence in the face of China’s growing economic and military might.
Next week, Obama is to be the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia as well as Myanmar, following a series of dramatic political changes in a country emerging from decades of military rule.
A senior US defense official told reporters traveling with Panetta that the US was open to reviving military ties with Myanmar.
US officials are considering cooperating with Myanmar’s armed forces on non-lethal programs focused on military medicine, education and disaster-relief exercises.
The activities would be “limited in scope” at the outset, the official added. “We’ll grow as appropriate over time. We need to see reform, we need to see continued progress.”
The overtures to Myanmar’s leaders are a source of concern for China, as Myanmar — along with North Korea — had remained firmly in Beijing’s orbit and off-limits to the US until now, analysts and officials said.
“From China’s perspective, enhancing US-Burma [Myanmar] security ties takes on greater significance, because it was one of the few countries in China’s periphery that Beijing had a near monopoly on military, economic and diplomatic relations,” said Andrew Scobell, an analyst at the US-based RAND Corporation think tank.